Civilization VI (2016)

It is no surprise that a Civilization game is underwhelming at launch. Civilization IV and Civilization V for example were extremely bare-bones at the time of their release, but they were significantly expanded on with patches, downloadable content (DLC), and expansion packs. In Civilization VI, all of those bonus features that were added onto its predecessors were present at launch. Unfortunately, most of these features are so fundamentally broken that I would much rather them be absent from the game. I figured I would give the developers some time to fix the major issues or at least acknowledge that these issues exist. It has been nearly a year now, and Firaxis has not done anything besides patching some glitches and adding new, paid DLC civilizations to play as. At this point, I am worried that the developers have no idea what is wrong with their game, let alone how to fix it. For me, there are 3 clear game-breaking issues that must be addressed. These 3 issues are the artificial intelligence (AI), user interface (UI), and the various tedium that plague Civilization VI.

Full disclosure, I feel like I have to mention that I am veteran of the Civilization series. I started with Civilization III when I was young, played a good amount of Civilization IV, and I have near 1000 hours of Civilization V and play on the highest difficulty setting. Many of my criticisms of Civilization VI may not be apparent to newer players, but I assure you if you play enough Civilization VI you will understand what I am talking about. That being said, I realize that I may be harsh on this game because of my experience, so a more casual player may not care about a lot of what I am going to mention.

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By far the most apparent issue with Civilization VI is its artificial intelligence (AI). The Civilization series is definitely not known for its brilliant AI, but there has always been a basic level of competency that could make the AI competitive. Not only is that competency is absent from Civilization VI, but the AI is completely unpredictable and illogical. It is clear that the developers knew that the AI was awful, as they gave the AI massive bonuses on the highest difficulties that are unprecedented in the series. For example, only on the highest difficulty of previous Civilization games the AI receives a bonus settler. But in Civilization VI, the AI starts receiving that bonus settler on the third highest difficulty, and now it receives 2 settlers on the highest difficulty. The AI is also extremely aggressive in Civilization VI, as the only way they can hope to defeat the player is by sabotaging the player so much that they cannot catch up to the AI’s massive early game advantages. I say sabotage because the AI is also completely incapable of actually wiping out the player or at effectively sieging your cities.

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One of my favorite things about playing Civilization V was studying the AI’s behavior and learning how each leader acted. I could then use this knowledge in future matches to predict what a certain leader was going to do and guess how the game was going to play out. This was essentially eliminated from Civilization VI because the AI is so unpredictable and varies heavily from game to game. The only consistent thing about the AI’s behavior is that their default state seems to be hatred. They hate the player and they hate each other, often leading to lackluster diplomacy as no matter what you do everybody is just going to denounce each other.

Another factor of the Civilization series that I also really enjoyed was the sort of role-playing aspect and watching as empires expanded and clashed over territory. Every time I generated a new game I felt as if I was witnessing an alternative history, and it is a factor that I considered insanely addictive.  Unfortunately, since the AI are so wholly incompetent this role-playing aspect is also destroyed. By the modern era half the world is unsettled because the AI unwilling to expand past a few cities. There are tiny, disjointed empires instead of sprawling empires where the civilizations border each other and make for a believable world. Also, since the AI is so horrible at waging offensive wars, they will almost never conquer their neighbors or take a capital city. In Civilization V, you could expect at least 1 or 2 of the AI to be wiped out by their neighbors, making for an evolving and interesting game world. But in Civilization VI, the AI are incapable of conquering each other, they may take a single city or destroy a city-state, but they almost never take capitals. This makes for a rather boring and uninteresting world to observe. The AI in Civilization VI is what I would consider a game-breaking issue, and I doubt that I will return to this game unless the AI is amended.

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Other than the AI, there are a few other major flaws that Civilization VI has that also hamper the game’s entertainment value. The next thing I want to touch on is its confusing and overcomplicated user interface (UI). In a strategy game like Civilization VI all of the vital information should be readily available to the player and there should be no clutter of superfluous information. In Civilization VI it is the other way around. The game has no problem clogging up your screen with random stuff like “England has built a granary in London!” Who cares? But you have to dig deep in order to understand key game mechanics like amenities. On top of that, most of the menus and just general layout of information is rather clunky and cumbersome to navigate. Also, the mini-map is a complete disaster. It now shows water tiles as owned land by other civilizations, the colors of the fog of war and undiscovered territory are the same, and it just feels very boxy and unpolished. They have done a little bit to improve the UI since launch, but it is still abysmal. If you want an example of a good UI in a strategy game, Fire Emblem: Fates is phenomenal in that department. There is a ton of information on the screen, it is laid out in a sensible manner, and if you want any more information on anything, you just tap on it.

I’ve heard people say that Civilization VI is a good base for a game to build upon in future expansion packs, even if it needs significant work before it can compare to its predecessors. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment, as the AI and UI are possible to fix and would significantly improve the game, but many of the core game mechanics are fundamentally broken and need a massive overhaul. This is why I am not optimistic for Civilization VI, sure the developers could fix the AI and UI, but I doubt they will scrap so many of these new features that they added into the game. Many of these new features are meant to give the game strategic depth and add more choices into the game, but they end up just becoming tedious, frustrating, and tiresome. These mechanics are: Religion, agendas, housing, the civic tree, eurekas and inspirations, governments, the new movement system, city management, diplomacy, builders, espionage, barbarians, and spies. I am not going to delve deep into why I think these mechanics are busted, as I want to keep this review at least a somewhat reasonable length. I may later do a full analysis of Civilization VI where I go deeper into these mechanics, what is wrong with them, and how to fix them. All of these issues highlight the biggest flaw of the Civilization series as a whole, which is that the game becomes boring and tedious once you have essentially won.

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There comes a point in every Civilization match when you realize that you are so far ahead that there is no feasible way for the opponents to make a comeback and defeat you. Some people quit when they reach this point, but many like to play the game out to its conclusion. You kind of turn on auto-pilot and hit the “next turn” button until you reach victory. Civilization VI exasperates this issue because you can no longer turn on auto-pilot, you still have to micromanage all of these features that I highlighted earlier. All of these features are unnecessarily tedious, and it feels like the developers just added more decisions and micromanagement just for the sake of having more decisions. All this does is reduce the weight from any decisions, and makes playing the game a chore because I now have to make a dozen meaningless decisions every turn. The importance of these decisions is drastically reduced because of the sheer number of them. Why should I care what government policy I choose when I can change it in 3 turns anyway? The lack of meaningful decisions and plethora of worthless decisions makes for a game that feels like a chore.

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There are a few worthwhile things in Civilization VI. The most obvious is the district system. Instead of everything in a city being built in that 1-tile area, now you have to establish districts on other tiles. For example: you need a campus district to build libraries, universities, and other science related buildings. From a world-building perspective it makes for a much more believable empire than in past iterations. It also has some interesting strategic properties as districts receive bonuses depending on where you place them, so you can plan out cities and what their districts will be for maximum efficiency. Another positive factor of Civilization VI is just the visuals. I think the art-style borders on being a little too cartoony at times, but sometimes you have to just sit back and admire the landscapes populated by your cities, districts, and wonders.

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It’s a shame really. It seems like Firaxis genuinely attempted to make this a complete game upon launch. But in their attempts to fill up the game with content, they neglected to check if all of that content was actually any good. As it stands you are much better off buying Civilization V and all its expansions and DLC, which as an entire package often goes on sale for less than $15. It is just a way more polished and complete game, and for a quarter of the price of Civilization VI. I am not sure if Civilization VI will ever be a good game, but the future looks grim for this title. For these reasons I give Civilization VI a 3/10. Maybe it will be good after some expansion packs, but right now the game is just a mess. If you ever feel an itch to play a grand strategy game, just play Civilization V instead.

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Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker (2014)

One of my favorite features from Super Mario 3D World was the inclusion of Captain Toad and his mini-games. Clearly, many others also adored those mini-games as Nintendo developed a full game using the base concept from Super Mario 3D World. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a puzzle-platformer adventure game. The main objective is to progress through small stages and collect stars and gems along the way.

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Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is a great game to just chill out for some relaxing fun. This is largely due to its simple level design. Levels are small arenas that the player can rotate to get a better view from all sorts of different angles. Captain Toad cannot jump or attack, so most levels consist of navigating these small maze-like courses, avoiding enemies and dangerous obstacles, and finding your way to the star, which acts as a goal in every level. Along the way, the player must also collect the 3 gems that are hidden in every level, as some stages later in the game require a certain number of these gems to unlock. These gems are often hidden in plain sight, or at least are fairly easy to guess where they might be hidden. Stages are very compact and quick to navigate through, so even if you are having trouble finding a hidden item it takes no more than a minute or two to play through the entire stage again to get another look. For the most part, the gems are out in the open and you just have to figure out how to get to them. Usually it involves a bit of puzzling or thinking of a not-so-obvious way of navigating these tiny courses. This is in stark contrast to a game like Yoshi’s Woolly World, where the collectibles were obtuse to find and required scouring every inch of a level to unearth them. In Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, there is no obnoxious combing of entire levels to find secrets, they are in plain sight and you just have to figure out how to get to them, which is how collectibles should be handled.

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While I find the level design itself to be both simple and gratifying, I think the visuals of each level are also top-notch. The idea of making most levels a small cube that just floats in the sky is actually pretty cool. Every stage is kind of like a 3D diorama that you can rotate in your hands. This is a unique way of exploring all sorts of different environments, which is a key element of any adventure game, but it takes out all the long treks and expanses of nothingness between each important zone. It also allows the developers to space out any theme they want, rather than playing them in big chunks. In traditional adventure games, if you enter a snowy area for example, you know that you are going to be exploring that snow-covered area and that area alone for the next few hours, and after a while seeing the same environment over and over can just get dull. I enjoy the fact that the themes can be spread out across the game instead of having to play them all at once. You can always expect some fun places to explore in a Nintendo game, and Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is no exception. There are plenty of visually appealing environments and atmospheric areas to discover.

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While I did enjoy Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker, I feel like there was a lot of missed potential here. Nintendo does not have a puzzle game franchise, and I feel like there was perfect opportunity to make Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker into a puzzle game series. Instead, we got a platforming-adventure-puzzle hybrid, which is fine, but the puzzle elements are fairly lacking. Most puzzles in this game are just involve hitting a switch which changes the stage and opens up a new path to the goal. There are no truly head scratching moments or things that make you really think about how to proceed. There are a couple of optional challenges that the game provides that are interesting, like limiting how many times you can hit a switch during a particular stage. These are fairly uncommon though and are entirely optional. Some levels show a good deal of potential and made me think that I was going to keep track of all the different forms the stage takes from hitting a button, and then hit the buttons in the correct order to progress forward. In reality, you just kind of progress forward and hit the buttons along the way, there is not much thinking involved. I was never really thoroughly impressed by any of the levels, and as a whole the game lacks a “wow” factor.

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Not every game has to be an industry-changing, genre-defining game. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker is just fine for what it is: a short, clever, charming, and relaxing adventure. If you are looking for a cute adventure game with a few platforming and puzzle elements, then this game is perfect for you. This is not an ambitious title that will shape the industry for years to come, but it does not pretend to be. It’s just a simple little adventure game that you can meander your way through. For these reasons I give Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker a 7/10. I enjoyed the calming pace and nature of this game, but there is definitely some untapped potential here.

Yoshi’s Woolly World (2015)

Mario’s beloved dinosaur companion returns in this fuzzy platforming adventure. Nintendo has a large number of platforming IPs, each main character having a unique array of abilities to set the games apart. To go along with that, they all have drastically different difficulty levels. Starting with the slow and forgiving Kirby, Yoshi is the next step in difficulty, followed by Mario, and finally Donkey Kong. Kirby games tend to be introductory platformers and tend to bore more experienced players, so I was hoping to find the sweet spot of relaxing and difficult with Yoshi’s Woolly World. While the base levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly simple, there is a high variance in the difficulty of the game depending on many of the collectibles you try to obtain.

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Like most other Nintendo platformers, trying to collect the collectibles scattered throughout each level is a way of stepping up the difficulty for players who are looking for an additional challenge. Yoshi’s Woolly World takes this concept to the next level. Each level has 4 main collectibles for the player to find, and each has an individual purpose. There are yarns, flowers, stamps, and hearts, the two most important are the yarns and flowers. The plot of Yoshi’s Woolly World is that evil wizard Kamek unravels all of the Yoshis, who are made of yarn and scatters them across the land. Collecting all the yarns in a specific level essentially rescues one of those Yoshis and lets you play using their unique color scheme. If you collect every flower in all 8 levels of a specific world, you unlock a hidden bonus level, which is a shame because these bonus levels were generally my favorite and it is unfortunate that they are hidden behind collectibles. Stamps and hearts do not provide much for the player, but if you go through the trouble of getting all the yarns and flowers, you might as well go for 100% and get a golden star for finding everything. Personally, I generally like collectibles in games, but I feel like Yoshi’s Woolly World went about them the wrong way.

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Gathering collectibles in games is an optional task, and is best left that way because not all players love collecting. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the player is heavily incentivized to collect things to save their Yoshi companions and to unlock hidden levels. Unfortunately, I do think that the collectibles were handled properly.  In a platformer, collectibles should be gated behind a platforming challenge, maybe a set of tough, consecutive jumps. Or in the case of Yoshi, whose special ability is that he can throw eggs, maybe have collectibles be an aiming challenge. Occasionally, there could be hidden areas that the player can spot if they are perceptive which hide collectibles. In Yoshi’s Woolly World, the vast majority of the collectibles are hidden in those secret types of areas. It even goes further than that, many collectibles are hidden inside invisible clouds or walls that the player cannot spot unless they physically touch it. So, if you are looking for collectibles you essentially have to constantly jump around and bump into every wall, ceiling, and touch every inch of the screen if you want to find these invisible objects. This is not ok, it slows down the pace of the game tremendously and makes progressing through levels tedious rather than entertaining. And if you miss something you have to go through the whole level again doing the same thing just to find one missing item. Most of the time I had to replay levels 2 or 3 times before I found the invisible final item nonsensically floating in the middle of the sky somewhere. It turns the game from a platformer into some sort of treasure hunt, where the treasures are hidden illogically and with the sole intention of wasting your time.

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Perhaps I hurt the experience for myself by going for the 100% completion, but I am not sure if I would have been engaged without searching for the collectibles. My suggestion for newer players is to hunt for whatever collectibles are on screen, but do not obsess over them as they are a giant time sink. It is a shame because then you won’t get to save Yoshis friends and you won’t get to play the great bonus levels, but they are not worth the time required to unlock them. If you complete the game regularly and want more, then definitely go back and try to 100% every level, but don’t ruin the game for yourself by going for all the collectibles right off the bat.

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The levels of Yoshi’s Woolly World are fairly easy, as I would expect from a Yoshi game, which is why I was going for the collectibles in the first place. What I liked about the level design was that every single level was unique. Every level had a sort of gimmick in place that was the central theme of the level. Ropes that you grab and swing on, bubbles that you bounce on, creating your own platforms by tossing eggs,  these are just a few examples but every single level has some sort of twist to it. I liked this as the game constantly felt fresh and there were no “throw away” levels that are there just to pad the content. My big issue was that everything just felt kind of slow. Outside of the secret levels, all but a few of the levels you just kind of waddle along at your own pace without immediate threats or danger. I guess I should have expected this out of easier platforming game, but I feel like this is how collectibles could have been used to improve the experience. Maybe collectibles could disappear after some time has passed as a way of speeding up the player, or have a series of optional jumps that increase difficulty for experienced players. I felt stuck in a sort of limbo, the game was too easy and not engaging when just played normally, but was a tedious scavenger hunt when I went for the collectibles.

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Outside of the uniquely and memorable gimmicks in every level, there are a few other features to this game that make it appealing. First, and most obviously, is the phenomenal art direction. Taken straight out of Kirby’s Epic Yarn, I absolutely love the visuals of this game. Everything is made of woven yarn and wool, and there is a ton of attention to detail to keep it all looking like it was handcrafted. These knitted characters and worlds are adorable, whimsical, and charming, it is probably my favorite feature of the game. It is especially cute whenever you get to play alongside Yoshi’s new canine pal Poochy, I mean who doesn’t love a good dog?  There is also a co-op mode so you can play with a friend, or maybe your kid as this a good platformer for beginners. Another cool feature is the ability to buy power-ups through gems that you collect in the levels. You will have an overabundance of these gems and it could be pretty fun to spend them to give Yoshi powerful abilities. Lastly, I think this game is probably an appropriate difficulty level for young kids. It is definitely a little tougher than Kirby games, but not as hard as Mario or Donkey Kong. I just think that there should have been a good way of stepping up the difficulty for more experienced players. I absolutely loved the hidden levels of this game, they were fast, fun, and had some challenging platforming. If the whole game had similar level design this would have been a must play game in my opinion, but there are so few of these levels and they are hidden behind an irritating collectible system.

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Overall, I think Yoshi’s Woolly World is a decent game. While I spent a lot of time ranting over its obnoxious collectible system, I don’t think most players will even attempt to collect most of them. And while for someone who is more familiar with platformers the game is slow and easy, it is the perfect difficulty for its intended audience. As someone who grew up playing the original Yoshi’s Island, maybe I expected too much out of this game, but I felt seriously stuck between the game being too easy when played normally, and flat out annoying when playing for collectibles. Still, the whimsical charm and creativity of Yoshi’s Woolly World is sure to impress. For these reasons, I give Yoshi’s Woolly World a 6.5/10. It is great as an introductory platformer, but I feel that it offers little outside of that.

Should games journalists be good at games?

The controversial question that many gamers have been recently asking is this: do reviewers have to be good at the games that they review?  This all started from the DOOM Polygon disaster last year, in which a Polygon reviewer was sent to preview the new DOOM game and record some footage. Here is that footage. Whoever Polygon chose to send to this event and preview DOOM for the world to see clearly has never played an FPS before and it showed in their anemic gameplay. This sparked a bit of a controversy and led to this question at hand. This question has recently shown its face again, similarly it is from a 30-minute preview of an upcoming game, this time the game is Cuphead. WARNING, this video is painful to watch for anyone who as ever played a video game. In the 30-minute-long video, the games journalist fails to even complete the first level of Cuphead and does not seem to grasp the basics. Hell, he spends 2 minutes trying to complete a single jump in the tutorial. This shameful display has resurfaced and reignited the debate if game journalists should be good at the games that they play.

To me, the answer to the question is fairly obvious. People who review games for a living absolutely need to be good at them. In the two previously mentioned examples, it would be very unfair for those 2 journalists to give their opinion on games that they clearly have no business playing. The games would be horribly misrepresented, as the reviewers would give their perspective from somebody who does not even know how to play the game. Now to be fair, people may be more experienced with certain genres of games, but if that is the case, do not review a game from a genre that you are clearly bad at. I think most people would tend to agree that reviewers have to have a decent level of competency to review a game.

The real question for me is, can reviewers be just average at games, or do they actually have to be fairly good? My mentality at first was “just don’t suck”, but my opinion has changed let me explain why. Originally, I figured that as long as journalist had a basic level of skill and were average at the game, they could give an accurate review of a game. I mean, most people are average, so a reviewer who is also average would have opinions that tend to align with the majority, right? Probably, but that does not qualify them to explain what makes the games they are discussing good or bad. Sure, they could talk about some surface level stuff, but a lot of games are great because of the small details, because of the things an average player would not notice, but they are still there.

Just like in movies, an average viewer like myself could tell you if a movie was good or bad. But if you ask me about narratives, cinematography, lighting, audio design, CGI, editing, the director, etc., I would be completely lost. I can view it as the whole, but I cannot break it down and explain what makes it successful. The same applies to video games. A casual player cannot pick apart a game and explain the minutiae that all come together to make one cohesive experience. Dark Souls for instance may seem to be just an average fantasy RPG at first glance, but most people who play it agree that it is one of the best and most influential games ever made. The leveling system, lore, enemy design, visuals, world building, level design, unforgiving attitude, and the online aspects make for an extraordinary experience. I will not go into details as that is for my upcoming Dark Souls review, but many reviewers and average players just glance over these details and what makes them work so effectively.

As a sort of aside note, I wish everyone would stop referring to hard games as “Dark Souls of X-genre”. Yes, Dark Souls is notorious for its difficulty, but that isn’t the only factor about the game. When I see games like Cuphead, which has no similarities to Dark Souls other than its difficulty, being referred to as the “Dark Souls of run-and-guns” my soul hurts a little bit. Game comparisons can be valid, but they actually have to make sense and be more related than just the difficulty level of the game. For example, Hollow Knight is Dark Souls-esque because of its looping level design, checkpoint system, visuals, ambiguous lore, intense boss fights, death and soul system, unforgiving and hostile world, and its difficulty. So please stop calling everything “similar to Dark Souls” just because it is hard.

I think games journalists these days are mainly hired for their writing skills or their personalities, rather than their expertise of video games. This is becoming abundantly clear. Harder games often get flak for being too hard, and game reviews do not explain the in-depth mechanics of games and what makes them work. I do not consider myself to be one of the best video game players or an expert, but I do feel like I am good enough to give a valid opinion on the games that I play. People who are paid to professionally play and review games should be experienced enough to understand the inner workings of a game and dissect it, rather than viewing it as a whole. Just like what a professional film critic might do. At the very least, websites like Polygon need stop using people who are wholly incompetent and unable to play games, let alone review them.

Stardew Valley (2016)

There is nothing more relaxing than chilling out and maintaining your farm in the calming Stardew Valley. This Harvest Moon inspired game is the brainchild of a single developer, ConcernedApe. Can this farming simulator overcome the pitfalls of the other games in its genre? In some ways yes, but I feel like the same problems that plague this genre also drag down Stardew Valley. Regardless of this, Stardew Valley is the perfect comfy game to just sit down and relax and play for a while.

From start to finish, Stardew Valley is undeniably charming. The great pixel art and sprite work, bright visuals, and upbeat music keep this game cheerful. The main character inherits a farm from their grandfather, and uses it as an escape from a soulless corporate world. It is your job to restore this run-down farm and maintain it for years to come. There is so much that needs to be done, and that is what makes Stardew Valley so addictive at the start.

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Through the clever use of quests, Stardew Valley subtly directs the player into the many different tasks that must be completed. Open-ended games like this can often lack a feeling of direction and the player can either become overwhelmed or they feel like there is no point to doing anything. This is not the case in Stardew Valley, helping out the villagers of Pelican Town is certainly rewarding and gratifying. But the real goal I found myself working towards was restoring the community center. Early in the game, you learn of the dilapidated community center, and you discover the secret that magical creatures known as Junimos are living there. They will help you restore the community center if you bring them all sorts of different materials.

All of the different crops, ores, fish, foraged goods, and other special materials that you collect will  be needed to fully restore the community center. There are dozens of bundles that require specific materials to complete, and you get a small reward for each bundle, as well as a big reward for completing all of the bundles in one of the rooms. These big rewards were very satisfying as they often opened up new areas and I could not wait to see what the next big reward would be. The use of the community center as a central goal was very clever, as it does not force the player into doing anything, but it serves as a sort of guideline as to what can be done. Whenever I felt like I had run out of things to do in this game, I took a look at what was needed in the community center and realized there was plenty that I had not explored or played around with. This sort of direction is desperately needed in an open-ended game like this. Unfortunately, once I had finished the community center, I felt like this game just lost its purpose.

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Games like this can often get repetitive, and Stardew Valley certainly does not avoid this later on in the game. Once you get your farm up and running, you have to spend good portion of your limited daily time and energy to just water the crops, take care of the animals, make artisan goods, and whatever else needed to be done that day. Eventually you just get into a cycle that you cannot break, and it started to get repetitive and draining for me. I know many people may find it relaxing to do the same tasks over and over, but once I got into this late game cycle I found it to be very boring. I had bought everything and was gaining money hand over fist, so I did not even feel like there was a point to this tedium. This combined with the lack of direction that the game had once I completed the community center made for a very monotonous late game.

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There were a few other issues I had with Stardew Valley. One of them being that while I mainly looked to this game as a source of relaxation, I felt like some of the main tasks in this game could get pretty frustrating. In particular, the fishing mini-game was aggravating and so much of time spent fishing just sitting around waiting for a fish to bite. Also, combat in this game is reminiscent of NES-era games like the original Legend of Zelda. This is not a good thing. While combat is a minor part of Stardew Valley, I feel like it often gets in the way while am trying to mine for resources. My last issue with Stardew Valley is that while it does a great job with its delayed gratification, I feel like it sometimes it goes overboard with using time from keeping the player from progressing. Certain tasks can only be completed in specific seasons, so if you want to do that thing, you are going to have to wait a while. As I was almost done with the community center, there were long stretches of days I just had to wait around before I could do anything of significance to further myself to completing my goal.

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As I said, Stardew Valley is usually pretty great when it comes to delaying gratification, but keeping you hooked while you wait. Most things in Stardew Valley take a while before you can start reaping their benefits. Planting crops, upgrading tools, adding new buildings, renovating your house, raising animals, making artisan goods, all of these things require a few days before they become profitable. But as you are waiting for that big payoff, there is still plenty to be done. Fishing, mining, foraging, or just cleaning up your farm were enough to suffice and keep me entertained while I waited.

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As a whole, I did thoroughly enjoy Stardew Valley. For the first 3 seasons, I was addicted and could not stop playing it. For the next couple of seasons, I still enjoyed it, but I could feel the tedium and repetitive nature of the game arise. In the final seasons that I played, I just kept going so I could have that one final payoff of finishing the community center. I just wish there was some more engaging tasks to be done while waiting for those final items to be attainable. Maybe Stardew Valley is not my type of game, as this is not a genre that I play very often, but the repetitiveness definitely wore me out after some time. That being said, even though this is not a genre that I typically play, I still really loved the first few seasons of this game. I would highly recommend it to anybody who likes these types of games. Overall, I have to give Stardew Valley an 8/10. It does run into the same issues as its predecessors, but is fantastic otherwise. If you are looking for a relaxing game to play, look no further than Stardew Valley.

Hotline Miami (2012)

While playing through the calm and slow-going Stardew Valley, I felt like I needed to quench my thirst for action. And there is no better way to fulfill that desire than Hotline Miami. What makes Hotline Miami stand out from many other indie action titles is how intensely satisfying it is in every regard. Every factor of this top-down shooter feels tailored to making beating the hell out of enemies feel just right.

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In an age where violence in video games in being condemned by the media, Hotline Miami revels in its violent nature. It is not afraid to go all out, and that is partly makes the game so gratifying, as sometimes you just need to play something intense. Another one of the factors that makes Hotline Miami so satisfying is how brutally brisk and quick it is. One shot is one kill. Many other action games suffer from bullet sponges and enemies that take entirely too long to take down. In this game, however, if you hit an enemy with a weapon, they are immediately dead. Of course, this works in the reverse as well. All it takes is one hit to take down the player. The unforgiving nature of this system is what keeps the game so fast-paced. Just a careless step by the player leads to death. Being able to blast through enemies with just a single hit from a bat or one bullet makes every action much more meaningful and satisfying. There is a real sense of “oomph” when you bash someone with the bat or blow them across the screen with the shotgun.

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A game with such a small margin of error requires great level design in order to keep it from being aggravating. When a single stray bullet can lead to your demise, the levels need to be specifically designed to avoid cheap and unsatisfying deaths. That being said, you are going to die in Hotline Miami, a lot. Luckily, just a quick button press and you are back at the start of the floor, there is not even a break in the music. Since a game like this is reliant on its level design, it is a good thing that Hotline Miami is phenomenal in that regard. Small sectioned-off rooms make sure you do not have to tackle too many enemies at once. Every floor is designed in such a way that it is advantageous to go fast, and slowing down could be a death sentence. It is critical for you to get the first shot off in every encounter, which is a result of the “one shot, one kill” style gameplay. Every obstacle and enemy is clearly displayed to the player. Enemies are not hidden off-screen or sniping you from across the map. There is maybe two points in the game that I was shot by an off-screen enemy, which was definitely frustrating, but those moments are few and far between.

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Every level in Hotline Miami feels like an intense and violent puzzle. Which mask and ability would work best, which rooms should I hit first, should I attempt to be stealthy or go in guns blazing; these are all questions I asked myself at the start of every level. Of course, any strategy that you might have quickly gets overridden by your desire to just run in and kill some Russian mobsters, and the game rewards you with bonus points for doing so. Enemies mostly have set patterns, but often deviate just a little bit so repeating the same exact actions over and over may yield different results. Most of the time in Hotline Miami, you just have to rely and your killer instincts in the heat of the moment.

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Now that it is established that Hotline Miami is fantastically brutal, fast, and bloody from a gameplay perspective, we need to talk about its other aspects. The psychedelic and neon-soaked visuals of Hotline Miami perfectly depict the drug fueled city of Miami in 1989. You are dropped into the bizarre life of Jacket, who constantly has surreal visions and begins to receive phone calls that instruct him to perform massacres on the local Russian mafia. As the game progresses, reality and Jacket’s identity become warped and distorted. In some in-game sequences it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is Jacket’s mind imagining violent scenes and imagery. Jacket’s identity is also perverted as time passes, he always wears a mask during the killings, but certain dreamlike sequences reveal that he is conflicted and confused. The player shares these emotions with Jacket, as unraveling the mystery of Hotline Miami is quite the task. Many questions are asked, and it starts to make sense as you reach the end of the game. Unfortunately, I felt like the ending was a little bit lackluster, but ultimately for a game that I was just playing for some violent fun I was pretty impressed by the narrative elements.

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You cannot talk about Hotline Miami without mentioning its soundtrack. Thumping synth filled songs, like M.O.O.N. – Paris, are blasting when you slaughter floors upon floors of Russians. Deep and distorted guitars, from Coconuts – Silver Lights, play in the surreal sections of the game. And no song is better matches Jacket waking up from a drug induced slumber like Sun Araw – Deep Cover. Hotline Miami is full of great tracks for all different situations, and some of the songs are downright addictive.

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One last thing I want to touch on is the ability of the developers to show restraint. Many of great games are brought down by the fact that they just drag on too long and become repetitive, to the point of being exhausted with the game. This is certainly not the case in Hotline Miami. The game is relatively quick, it only took me about 5 hours to complete it. I rarely revisit a game immediately after I beat it, but with this one I went right back in and replayed some of my favorite levels. The gameplay of Hotline Miami is definitely addicting and fun, but I feel like if it went on too long and overstayed its welcome, it could have quickly gotten grating. Luckily, Hotline Miami knows its limits and does not overdo it.

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As a whole, Hotline Miami knows what it is and plays to its strengths. Quick, violent action with distorted storytelling and arcade-esque visuals. Hotline Miami has mastered the art of making everything intensely satisfying. This game is certainly not for everyone, and if you are not interested in violent games or games that require quick reaction time I would stay away from this title. But if you are looking for a blood-soaked, fast-paced action game, look no further than Hotline Miami.

Metal Slug 3 (2000)

Metal Slug 3 is often considered the pinnacle of the series, and it is clear that the developers really poured their hearts into this game. This was the last Metal Slug game that was developed by the original Nazca and SNK team before they went bankrupt, were bought by another company, and disbanded. This installment is longer and has substantially more content than its predecessors, and it is evident that this was the developer’s last hurrah before having to split up.

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Metal Slug had realistic environments and enemies, and Metal Slug 2 ventures into the land of the outlandish, Metal Slug 3 cranks up the level of absurdity. For the vast majority of the game you are fighting fictional creatures instead of standard enemy soldiers. Each level’s theme, environment, and monstrous boss battle make them extremely memorable. The other big addition to Metal Slug 3 is the variance in the vehicles. Seven new playable vehicles were added for the player to use and enjoy. Another new feature is that most levels have multiple paths to complete the level. This adds a factor of replayability as well as exploration. Metal Slug 3 is often touted as the best in the series and even the paramount run-and-gun game. While I can see how this is definitely a logical and sensible opinion, I have one issue with this game that holds it back.

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My personal issue with Metal Slug 3 is its final mission. While the first two Metal Slug games are about an hour each, the final mission of Metal Slug is 35 minutes long just by itself. That is an absurdly long time for a single arcade game level. To be fair, there are distinct portions of this level that completely change the environments and enemy types, but I feel like those distinct parts should have been split up into a few different missions. When I saw that I had gotten to the final mission, I thought that I was almost done. It was really jarring to think that I had almost beaten the game, but then the final level just kept going, and going and going. This was compounded by the fact that Metal Slug games are very tiring for your fingers as you have to mash the shoot button for nearly the entire game. The other irritating factor of this final mission was the difficulty spike that occurred. The beginning levels of Metal Slug 3 had difficulty levels comparable to the first two games in the series, but the final mission can get ridiculous at times. I accrued far more deaths in this final mission than in every other level of this game combined.

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If it were not for the final mission, I could easily say Metal Slug 3 was my favorite in the series. Do not get me wrong, it is still a fantastic game with great action and artwork, but I cannot help but feel like it the last level dragged on for ludicrous amount of time. Combine the length with tired fingers and a sharp difficulty spike and it is a recipe for an exhausting mission. That being said, Metal Slug 3 is definitely a fantastic run-and-gun game that I thoroughly enjoyed. The pure variety of weapons, vehicles, enemies, environments, and maps make Metal Slug 3 a game that is worth of being remembered as one of the premier run-and-gun games.

Mass Effect (2007)

While some believe Mass Effect to be outdated and clunky, it is the necessary starting point for a legendary series. While the original Mass Effect definitely has not aged well, I believe it would be an injustice to the series and yourself to skip over it to play the more refined sequels. Mass Effect is a space action-RPG (role-playing game), and while the “action” and gameplay is dated, the RPG aspects are still top-notch and make Mass Effect a game worth playing. Deep lore, emotional decisions, strong story-telling, and an intriguing plot are the factors that make Mass Effect successful.

One of the major elements of Mass Effect is the depth of its lore and its expansive universe. Codex and journal entries are available to the player if they ever want to learn more about the missions they are doing or the lore behind the universe. Various entries on the different alien species, including their physiology, galactic presence, and their history. Everything in this game has an explanation and background info if you are interested to learn more about something in particular. Knowing the backgrounds and the relationships between all the alien species definitely adds depth and a factor of validity to this game.

The characters and the story are the defining factors of Mass Effect for me. You play as Commander Shepard and are in charge of the space vessel Normandy and her crew. Most of the time you will be interacting with your “squad” as they are the ones that you can bring along with you to combat. It is definitely a rewarding and almost cozy feeling as you build up your squad and add new members to it at the beginning of the game. Throughout the course of the game you talk with them, get their input on certain situations, build friendship, help them complete certain personal quests, or even romance them. What sets Mass Effect apart from other shooters is the reliance on this squad both on and off of the battlefield. Other games suffer from the protagonist doing everything while other characters just sit around, but in Mass Effect your squad is a massive part of the game. It adds a sense of legitimacy and realness to the game. This is why certain decisions and choices that must be made are so emotional. You build up this squad, fight with them, train them, and interact with them, so when a squad mate gets killed off in the story, it is a devastating blow.

The story of Mass Effect is full of mystery, intrigue, and emotion. The basic premise is that you must figure out what happened to an advanced alien species that died off 50,000 years ago, and you must prevent the same fate from happening to humans and their allies. The game feeds you piecemeal clues as you progress through the story. Seemingly unconnected events and plot-lines all come together by the end to form a cohesive and alluring plot. The story was paced well, there is never any downtime and I was always wanting to see what happened next. There are plenty of individual decisions and choices that you must make in this game. Some choices are minor, while others play a huge role in whats to come. You get to decide the fate of many lives and species. My only issue with this was that it was a little too rewarding to be the “nice guy”. There is rarely any downside going with the games heroic “paragon” options. I wish there was more incentive to be neutral or even go with the “renegade” option. There were a few points in the game that did this right, but for the most part the paragon route is the most rewarding option by a long shot.

While the RPG aspects of Mass Effect are clearly masterclass, the gameplay is definitely clunky and unsatisfying. Enemies often times have tons of health and shields, and some take minutes to take down a single basic enemy. This is compounded by the fact that the guns that you are using do a pittance of damage and overheat frequently, so you are forced to stop shooting for long stretches of time. There is no jumping or hurdling objects, so you have to slowly navigate even the smallest of obstacles. Constantly re-equipping your squad of 7 members with 4 types of weapons, upgrades for those weapons, and armor just gets tedious. Your squad mate’s special abilities often feel underwhelming as there is no big audio or visual cue when they are being used. For some reason, you can only sprint in combat, but not out of combat, which is when you really want to be sprinting so you can get around faster. There is an excessive amount of loading screens and elevators, which just waste a ton of time. Travelling from planet to planet is also tedious. Realistically, getting around anywhere in this game is just slow and draining. Driving the Mako vehicle is easily one of the worst driving experiences in any game that I have played. It goes extremely slow, defies physics, is tough to handle, and it does not even shoot where you aim it. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that you often have to scale cliffs with this abomination of a vehicles. Some of the biggest gameplay problems stem from the sidequests. They often drop you off in barren worlds, leaving you to drive the Mako across a vast nothingness for a few minutes. Then when you finally reach the building where the quest is located, you realize that it is the same exact layout as every other sidequest in the game, so you essentially repeat the same firefight that you have done many times before.

While the gameplay of Mass Effect could be categorized as clunky, repetitive, and tedious, it is still a worthwhile game. Not only to set up the legendary sequels, but also because the characters and story can keep you playing despite the tedium. The biggest improvement that should be made from Mass Effect for its follow-up titles is that it definitely needs to be streamlined in places. Trim off the banal tasks and clean up the controls and overall movement to make the game less monotonous and burdensome at times. All in all, it is worth sticking through the mediocre gameplay just for the RPG elements. And if you avoid doing sidequests you will skip over a lot of problematic sections altogether. Mass Effect might not be perfect, but it is still worth a play through. I am very excited to see what Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 have in store for me, and if they could solve the issues of Mass Effect.

Metal Slug 2 (1998)

A proper sequel or follow-up game should improve upon the original, but at the same time maintain the aspects which made the original successful. Metal Slug 2 does a great job at keeping all of the great aspects of Metal Slug, but adding a few things here and there to improve the experience. Metal Slug 2 plays exactly the same as the original, fast-paced run-and-gun action. There is a new weapon, some new enemy types, new vehicles, and more varied and environments, all of which make this sequel distinct from the original.

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The other distinction from the original is the humor and absurdity that was added. Outlandish enemies like aliens and mummies certainly add a unique feeling to Metal Slug 2. The original was a much more traditional war title, but I appreciate the goofiness of Metal Slug 2. Humorous moments like a killer whale leaping out of the water and swallowing enemies whole make Metal Slug 2 more memorable than the first.

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Overall, Metal Slug 2 is more varied and unique than the original, but at the same time the game plays the same. It is still tough to minimize your deaths, but deaths are not punished so you can limp your way through the game even if you are struggling. I am not a huge fan of the forgiving nature of the game, but if you really want a challenge you can still just play the game and try to die as few times as possible. I quite like the absurdity of Metal Slug 2, and I think that it was an improvement on the original game’s ordinary war scenario.  All in all, Metal Slug 2 is a quick and fun game to play that keeps in the chaotic spirit of the original. If you have an hour to kill and you want some old-school run-and-gun action, definitely check out Metal Slug 2.

Metal Slug (1996)

If you are a fan of run-and-guns, arcade games, or just looking for some quick fun, Metal Slug should be a top priority on your play list. This Rambo-esque arcade game is constant, fast-paced, hectic, action and intensity. Beautifully hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds only add to the charm of this game. Rapidly sprinting through the 2D environments, dodging enemy fire, and blasting through enemies with the various weapons at your disposal is just a ton of fun. Metal Slug is very challenging, but also extremely forgiving. It is challenging in the sense that getting through every level while dying as little as possible is can be a daunting task as bullets, missiles, and grenades fly at you from every direction. But at the same time anytime you die or run out of lives, you just get put back exactly where you were, so there is no punishment for screwing up.

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My only real issue with the game was the fact that you respawn exactly where you die. I would have liked to see frequent checkpoints, and if you die a few times and run out of credits, you get sent back to that checkpoint. That way, the player would be challenged to make it through small sections without dying an excessive amount of times.

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Since Metal Slug is only 45-60 minutes long, there can be a real addictive quality to going back and beating the levels again, but trying to die less and get a higher score. Metal Slug also supports multiplayer, so you can have fun with a friend as you shoot your way through this game. As one of the legendary run-and-gun titles, Metal Slug is definitely worth a play through.